[Humanist] 30.723 a tradeoff

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Feb 8 07:13:00 CET 2017

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 723.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 7 Feb 2017 11:34:22 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: tradeoff

I am in the grip of Mary Morgan's fine book, The world in the model: How 
economists work and think (Cambridge, 2012). You will, I hope, forgive 
me for yet another reference to it. (A more insightful book on modelling 
would be hard to find.)

In her discussion of the turn of economists to mathematics, spearheaded 
by William Jevons (1835-1882), she gives this summary of the tradeoff 

> By his kind of work, methods of creating models of economic man
> became inextricably linked with 'formalizing'™. This entailed changing
> the language of economics, from the informal and hugely nuanced
> possibilities of expression found in our verbal languages (but with
> their limited reasoning possibilities) to the more constrained but
> more exact and rule-bound symbolic forms of mathematics (with their
> greater reasoning powers. (p. 149)

For our purposes, and quite beyond them, your favourite programming 
language can be substituted for "mathematics" in the above, following 
Michael Mahoney's argument that software is a kind of mathematics, 
though as yet we don't quite understand what kind. You may wish to 
dispute Morgan's characterization of the "limited reasoning 
possibilities" of verbal language and the comparative "greater" 
attributed to mathematics. But her clear statement of the tradeoff in 
moving from verbal to mathematical reasoning (incl. software) is 
worth the price of admission. There's always a tradeoff.

This does indeed lead to a question: what, exactly, are the reasoning 
powers of the "more exact and rule-bound symbolic forms" of software? 
And this to another: do they, as we humanists often claim, have to be 
inferior? If not, under what conditions of use?


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London; Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney
University and North Carolina State University; Editor,
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20)

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